FOXBORO -- The Patriots spend an inordinate amount of time focused on the kicking game -- technique, strategy, personnel -- but even they seem to be in a state of special-teams flux as their season-opener with the Chiefs approaches.
They lost linebacker and key special-teamer Shea McClellin to injured reserve earlier this week. Perhaps in an effort to replace him, they traded for Bengals linebacker and special-teamer Marquis Flowers. The Patriots released special-teamer Geneo Grissom (then re-signed him to the practice squad), but they also dealt for Seahawks defensive end and special-teamer Cassius Marsh. In a separate deal, the Patriots acquired special-teams ace Johnson Bademosi from the Lions. They also released . . . and then re-signed . . . running back and kick-coverage specialist Brandon Bolden.
That's a lot of moving parts. And the challenge of getting them all to work well together quickly becomes compounded by the fact that they may have the league's best return units coming to Gillette Stadium on Thursday with Tyreek Hill and D'Anthony Thomas posing threats with their speed and elusiveness on kickoffs and punts.
Still, we may have not yet covered Bill Belichick's most pressing special-teams concern of the week: Who is going to be returning punts?
The Patriots lost perhaps their top two options when Julian Edelman and Cyrus Jones suffered ACL tears in back-to-back preseason games. But if Danny Amendola had any say in the matter, he'd step right in.
"Returning punts is one of my favorite things to do in the whole world," Amendola said this week. "It’s awesome. It’s like playing on the highway, if you’ve never done that before . . . Whatever the coaches ask me to do, whatever my role is, I’ll be ready."
Amendola has returned 147 punts in his career, including 18 last year, making him the most experienced returner remaining on the Patriots roster. The Patriots have done well to manage Amendola's workload in recent seasons, however, giving him a better chance to be healthy at the end of the season and providing Tom Brady with one of his most trusted options in December and January.
If they look to go elsewhere, there are other routes to take. Patrick Chung has returned punts for the Patriots in the past, and he was chosen to be the return-man on a trick return that the Patriots attempted to run during their comeback against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. He returned punts in college and told ESPN's Mike Reiss recently that if he's called upon, he'll be ready to go.
Newly-acquired receiver Phillip Dorsett could also be an option. He returned 25 punts at the University of Miami, but he's returned just two punts as a pro. What could also be working against Dorsett in terms of providing any immediate return contributions is that there are a number of rules returners have to be aware of when it comes to how a punt is returned, when it's returned at all, and when it's left alone, Belichick explained recently. After just a few days with the team, it's unclear whether or not he'll have a good grasp of everything by the Chiefs come to town.
Devin McCourty, Malcolm Butler and Malcolm Mitchell all had some experience in college returning punts. Brandin Cooks was worked in as a returner occasionally in training camp practices. Those would seem to be more emergency fill-in options if a need arose. Chris Hogan is one of the best overall athletes on the team and could potentially be asked to return in a pinch.
The best option -- the best option to help ensure that possession of the football won't be compromised -- would seem to be Amendola. When Belichick compared the punt-return position to the long-snapper spot recently, he emphasized the point that there's no quicker way to lose a football game than to have one of those few key moments botched.
The only question is how long would the Patriots want Amendola to perform in that role if they want to try to keep his health intact for what's expected to be a deep postseason run? In the short-term, if he's the team's No. 3 wideout, would they risk losing him in three-receiver sets by running him out to field every punt?
Perhaps the team can try to scale back his duties offensively in order to make up for the hits he'll take in the kicking game, or perhaps they can work to establish trust in another option as they build up their practice time without Jones and Edelman. (They recently added Demarcus Ayers, a slot-receiver and return man, to their practice squad.)
They can cross that bridge when they get to it, but for now, going with the safest option would probably mean going with Amendola.